How to Fight Human Trafficking with Data

We recently did a webinar with Jamey Caruthers, senior staff attorney at Children At Risk, about how to use data to fight human trafficking. Human trafficking is a huge problem in Texas, especially in Houston, and Children At Risk is leading the charge in helping to write and pass laws that increase penalties for perpetrators while also supporting and rehabilitating victims.

What is human trafficking? As Jamey shared, human trafficking is “the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel someone to engage in sex or labor services.” And when it comes to minors, those under the age of 18, force, fraud, and coercion isn’t necessary to prove: any commercial sex act involving a minor is considered human trafficking.

Figuring out the extent of human trafficking, however, is difficult because it has mostly operated in the shadows. That is, until the Internet came around. Now there are a host of online sites where traffickers and pimps advertise their services and buyers shop for sex. You might have heard of some of them, like Craigslist and BackPage (which was recently shut down), but others like are less well known.

For two years, we’ve been working with Children At Risk to analyze these online sources of data to track the supply and demand of human trafficking in Houston and identify local hotspots. These are the top five ways we’ve used data to fight human trafficking.

1. Track supply and demand

The Internet offers a number of ways to track the supply and demand for human trafficking. Many sexually-oriented websites are open to the public and, because of that, can be scraped by computer programs and turned into data for analysis.

For example, January Advisors analyzed the number of ads for sexual services posted on BackPage before and after Hurricane Harvey to understand how the trafficking market was affected by the storm. At the time, anti-human trafficking organizations were concerned that the influx of vulnerable people into shelters was a boon to trafficking recruiters, possibly leading to a surge in trafficking victims.

human trafficking during hurricane harvey children at risk
Note: Graphic appears in CHILDREN AT RISK’s recent publication, Growing Up In Houston.

We found that the number of ads dropped dramatically during the storm (in green), as one might expect, but there was a huge jump in the ensuing weeks (in red). These data helped anti-trafficking groups make the case to law enforcement officials and other organizations to pay more attention to sex trafficking after Hurricane Harvey.

Measuring demand for trafficking requires a bit more creativity. One way we have tracked demand is through fake ad campaigns on BackPage. As part of a CEASE campaign with the City of Houston, Children At Risk and January Advisors posted a dozen fake ads and tracked the number text messages each ad received. In the span of just a month, the fake ads received over 7,000 messages from 3,800 unique telephone numbers. (More on this in #4 below.)

2. Raise public awareness

Most people who hear about human trafficking assume it’s occurring on the other side of town. One of the easiest ways data can be used to fight trafficking is to show the public that it’s happening in their own backyards.

Last year, Children At Risk and January Advisors collected data on illicit massage parlors across Texas through the website It’s an online review site, much like Yelp, but for massage businesses that offer sex to customers. As Jamey told us in the webinar, many of these businesses are fronts for human trafficking.

Children At Risk took these data and calculated the distance between every illicit massage business and the nearest public school. They found that over 35,000 children across Texas attend school within 1,000 feet. Their findings received a ton of news coverage across the state, including an editorial by the Dallas Morning News’ editorial board, and helped bring this important aspect of human trafficking to the forefront of the conversation ahead of the 2019 Texas Legislative session.

illicit massage businesses near texas public schools
Note: Data visualization comes from Children At Risk’s analysis of human trafficking near public schools.

3. Target police interventions

Here’s one question Jamey Caruthers gets a lot: if we know where these places are, why can’t we just go in and shut them down? Unfortunately, it is not always that easy. (In legal terms, sites like RubMaps constitute hearsay and, by themselves, can’t be used to shut down a business.) But police departments across the state have used these data to pursue sting operations, which can lead to arrests (for example).

Another way to shut down these businesses is through licensing. Texas state law requires legitimate massage businesses to be licensed but many illicit massage businesses are not licensed. Concerned citizens who suspect a nearby massage business may be operating as a trafficking hub can go to the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation (TDLR) and find out if they’re licensed. If they aren’t, you can report them.

Law enforcement officials should also check out Children At Risk’s toolkit for the best ways to deal with illicit massage businesses.

Unfortunately, simply shutting down these places isn’t enough. During our webinar, Jamey Caruthers pointed out that when these businesses are shut down, they often end up moving down the street. A longer-term solution is to increase penalties for landlords who rent to these types of businesses. Children At Risk is pushing for legislation this session that would allow nearby businesses to more easily break leases with landlords who they suspect are leasing to illicit massage businesses in the commercial vicinity. To read more about this legislation, visit Children At Risk’s website.

4. Marshal a textbot army

Reducing demand for sex trafficking is difficult but it’s necessary in the long run. As long as there are willing buyers who see little risk in purchasing sex, the underground market will continue to thrive. Children At Risk is pushing for legislation that will increase penalties for sex buyers from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor on first offense, with a state jail felony for each additional offense.

We have also been helping Children At Risk with a more technological approach to address demand. As part of the CEASE network initiative, which seeks to reduce demand as a way to end trafficking, Children At Risk and January Advisors created fake ads on BackPage (described above) and included fake phone numbers connected to a textbot – a computer program that responds to incoming text messages with canned responses. When potential buyers responded to the fake BackPage ads, they received anti-trafficking messages and a link to an anti-trafficking website. Around 1-in-5 potential buyers who texted the fake ads ended up visiting the website during a three week campaign. 

5. Pressure lawmakers and public officials

Ultimately, if we want to change the deplorable state of human trafficking in Texas, we need to put effective pressure on our state lawmakers to rewrite our laws and implement sound public policy. These efforts should shift the blame and penalties away from victims and onto buyers, negligent landlords, and traffickers.

How can we use data to change lawmakers’ minds? We explored creating custom legislative handouts for every state lawmaker. You can scroll through all of them below. We took the RubMaps data showing the proximity of illicit massage business to Texas public schools and geocoded everything based on each lawmaker’s district boundaries.

Anti-Human Trafficking Texa… by on Scribd

Now every Texas lawmaker can see how many of these businesses reside in their district and the number of children who attend school nearby. Putting each lawmaker’s face on the front hopefully gives them a sense of ownership over the issue. This isn’t a problem others need to solve: it’s a problem that every Texas lawmaker needs to address.

To learn more, watch the entire webinar hear for more details from Jamey and our team:

David McClendon

David is a sociologist, demographer, and data scientist at January Advisors. You can follow him on Twitter and find his full bio on LinkedIn.